Melissa Johns and Cherylee Houston, co-creators of DANC, give their top tips for including disabled creatives in your production
Let us introduce ourselves; we are DANC: Disabled Artists Networking Community. DANC is project-run by arts organisation TripleC (Creative Confidence Collective). DANC is run for disabled artists, by disabled artists, and promotes two-way conversations between disabled artists and key industry professionals and decision-makers.
DANC acts as a central resource and links the industry together to ensure that, as well as disability being celebrated in its own right, it is continually being included as part of the mainstream.
We so often hear the words “representation matters”, that we need to be “representing diversity and difference” in the arts and media and, as disabled actors, of course we couldn’t agree more.
For years, minority groups have been fighting for their place in this industry and disabled artists have been at the back of that queue for a very long time. But “representation” has taken so long that we’re even hearing ourselves, as disabled people, use it as a reason for why we should be included! If we all continue to collectively think that the only reason we deserve to be in this industry is to represent, we are all pushing the wrong message.
When we dedicate our lives to becoming artists and work in the arts or media, we do it because our passion is to tell stories. A passion that enables us to take characters and mix them with our own experiences to create entertainment that’s relatable, thought-provoking and boundary-breaking. It’s the passion to retell life stories in millions of different ways and find pathways for getting our art out to audiences all over the world that brought us all to this industry.
The current tangible benefit of employing disabled artists is “representation”; currently our presence is so stark because disability is not familiar on our screens. If we change this now it can be the result of a wider movement. And it’s this wider movement that we need to key into, one that sees talent and opportunity combine.
See the creative – the professional – whatever their area of work may be, and remember that this industry is always richer with more voices.
Let’s not let representation be the driving force. Let’s reimagine it to just be an outcome which will fade into the background once we are all onboard.
Disability can initially be a tricky subject to address. It looms as a minefield of the unknown and the fear of getting it wrong. Where and how to start? Is it a relief to know it’s OK to feel like that? That is most people’s starting point. As with anything, it gets a lot easier once you begin. Take a tentative foot into these exciting waters, start the conversation; that’s how change happens.
What have we learnt in DANC?
The fastest and most effective way of including disabled talent is on screen is by enabling any character to be played by disabled actors. By not waiting for “disabled parts” and casting disabled actors in parts not specified as disabled means we will start making a stronger impact on the industry.
During our “commitment” initiative with producer Marcus Wilson, we identified that an effective way of ensuring disabled actors will be seen for non-disabled specific roles was for production companies to work with the writer in the very early stages of development/production, by going through the character list and identifying all characters that could be played by a disabled actor. This ensures that an inclusive way of working is embedded from the beginning rather than being an ‘add on’ at the end. Decide at the start of the process that you would like to employ a certain number of disabled actors, through a variety of different-sized roles.
A non-disabled actor playing a disabled character tends to bring a subtext of sadness or their opinion on what it would like be like to have that disability. Those actors’ reference points are mostly societies’ current negative ones around disability that are perpetuated through their portrayal. This is often entirely different to the reality of a lived experience of disability. Unfortunately, our collective film archive at present only really contains these caricatures of disability.
See access requirements as opportunities to crank up levels of creativity. On set, doing something differently to how you had originally conceived it because of an access requirement can give you such rich, pure moments between your characters. Don’t see additional access as a block; it can take you down paths you haven’t explored in the story; it can help to fast track visual moments of characters’ connections and enable you to show things from a new angle. It’s exciting to discover those creative solutions and those creative challenges are valuable additions as you wrangle with the delivery method of your story. It’s definitely a creative upgrade not a limitation, as often feared.
Access helps the whole team
Often having a disabled performer or crew member makes people more aware of their team, it changes our awareness of each other and naturally improves the working environment.
If each department thinks about access by including an awareness of it in the planning stages, this stops it suddenly being an addition which catches in the system. For example, if access is noted by the locations manager, the casting director can be mindful of accessibility of sets when auditioning actors. This links the production from start to finish. Including access prep across all departments will allow things to run more smoothly. Let the inclusion of access information just be a given.
With the inclusion of access considerations, you suddenly find that many more people in the team other than the disabled person will benefit. It also enables other people to speak more openly about their own needs.
Entry level positions
When looking at increasing your number of disabled employees, be aware that the usual entry level positions aren’t as accessible for disabled people. Often the role of runner is a key entry point industry-wise, yet this isn’t accessible to most disabled people because the job does not always accommodate those with impairment issues. Actively encourage disabled workers to apply for these roles but also look at which other entry level roles in your company could be made more suitable for disabled applicants.
This industry can be a lot about “who you know” as well as what you know. Lots of people working in many areas of the arts and media industry started off their careers by being introduced to people already working in that area and therefore being given opportunities to work their way up. But if you have never worked with a disabled artist or production staff, you will be less likely to have them in your networking circle of potential employees. This is why, when it comes to opportunities for disabled creatives, shadowing opportunities are invaluable. They offer frontline experience, the chance to pick up knowledge and terminology on set, and allow relationships to grow so that further employment can take place in the future.
Last year DANC worked with exec producer of BBC1’s The A Word, Marcus Wilson, to secure ten production places throughout the filming of the show. These ten placements were given fully paid work over five weeks and allowed the individual to choose the area or areas that they most wanted to gain experience in. This meant that during production, there were ten disabled creatives working in areas such as art department, costume, runners, alongside the 1st, 2nd and 3rd AD. This was a two-way learning process for both the production team and the creatives.
There is often an assumption that the cost of employing disabled people is much higher. There is a lovely story about a large bank who upon employing a small person spent thousands of pounds changing their lifts so the buttons were lower so he could reach. When he arrived on his first day, before he entered the lift he pulled an extendable stick out of his pocket to press the buttons as he had travelled in many lifts before.
Which leads us on to the most simple and effective piece of advice...
Just ask if you don’t know. It’s just a conversation. It’s the best starting point as the disabled employee has years of experience of finding solutions to their access requirements. Ask DANC! We have over 600 disabled creatives and one of us will know the answer. If not, we will know someone who does. Email email@example.com
Another useful tip for ensuring inclusion and tapping into disabled talent is to set goals. Set yourself some company or production goals in relation to disability, it will become familiar territory.
We can make the change quite quickly; we are an industry with a high level of freelancers, and knowledge spreads quickly. Let’s just start. Put it on the agenda. Put it on every agenda.
We haven’t focused on figures and statistics during this article. Don’t worry! We’re not going to throw a load of numbers at you now. But what will say is this: a couple of months ago, BFI NETWORK asked us to suggest films either around or that included disability that could contribute to two weeks’ worth of BFI’s #NETWORKandChill a chance to send a list of disabled-led work so that audiences could spend some time enjoying this art.
That is what led us to writing this article. We were unable to create a list of films that included disabled actors and/or disabled film makers to fill those two weeks.
In 2019, 2% of characters in the top 100 box-office hits were disabled. Note that this statistic relates to character rather than actor. So the percentage of onscreen talent with a disability is actually far less.
Let’s work together so that knowledge can be shared and we can all feel supported.
If we see this drive for change as a movement that everyone needs to be part of, we will break through these barriers faster, and with a deeper impact.
Representing disability on and off screen will have a huge impact on the way the world moves and the opportunities available to disabled people outside of our industry. But when taking these steps to break down the barriers, let’s ensure that the talent and professionalism of disabled artists are the forces that pave the way.
Melissa Johns, co-creator of DANC is an actress, speaker and advocate for disability on stage and screen. You can follow her work here.
Cherylee Houston, co-creator of DANC is an actress, speaker, workshop leader and teacher. You can follow her work here.